Saturday, June 09, 2012

NIGHT OF THE FULL MOON, by Gloria Whelan

Danielle wrote to ask me about Gloria Whelan's Night of the Full Moon. It is regarded as a "first chapter book" (for children who want to read chapter books on their own).

The main characters in the story are Libby (the white girl) and Fawn (the Native girl). In the author's note, Whelan tells us that although the story is fiction, it is (p. 63):
based, in part, on various accounts of the removal of the Potawatomi Indians from Indiana and southern Michigan in 1840. Throughout the summer of that year, soldiers of the U.S. Army, under Brigadier General Hugh Brady, rounded up the Potawatomi from their homes and villages. On August 17, over 500 Potawatomis embarked on a forced migration to Kansas, leaving their homelands behind forever.
I'm glad to see the note but wish Whelan had provided a list of those accounts.

Whelan's book takes the side of Native people who are losing their land. In this case, it is the Potawatomi who are losing their land. The bad guys are the soldiers who round up the Potawatomi people to forcibly move them from their homeland.

In chapter two, for example, Indian agents (white men who work for the federal government) tell Libby's family they are looking for Potawatomi's because "There's talk of sending them west across the Mississippi" (p. 15) because "Topnebi has agreed to having his people sent west. Proper treaties have been signed by him giving Potawatomi land over to the government" (p. 16). Libby's parents voice objections to the removal plan, and her father plans to warn Fawn's family.

The treaty Whelan points to was actually signed in 1821, which is almost 20 years before the year in which Whelan sets her story (1840). Removal had been going on for decades. The agent who talked with Libby's family makes it sound like it had not happened yet, and the forced removal that the agent oversees actually happened before 1840. To most people, that might be a small point. To the Potawatomi, I doubt it is a small point.

Libby and her father go to the camp of Fawn's family to warn them of the agent's plan. Fawn's father, Sanatuwa, tells Libby's father that Potawatomi's who lived south of Saginaw had been forcibly moved "some years ago." Sanatuwa says his group will probably not return from their next winter hunt. He invites Libby's family to a naming ceremony for Fawn's baby brother, which will take place on the "day of the night of the full moon" (hence the title) which sounds "Indian" but for which I couldn't find any reference to support that naming ceremony.

Before all of that happens, Whelan tells us that the Native people at the heart of her story (Potawatomi) prefer their name for themselves (Neshnabek), but Whelan doesn't use that word again. Whether it is in the narrative or in the dialog of her characters, the words used are "Indians" or "Potawatomi(s)".

Also in chapter one, we learn that Fawn's actual name is "Taw-cum-e-go-qua" but it is hard to say, so Libby calls her Fawn, which is the name Libby's father came up with because "she's like a young deer... graceful, with those long legs and big eyes" (p. 7).

I find the choice to use Fawn instead of Taw-cum-e-go-qua odd, because Whelan uses Potawatomi/Neshnabek names for all of Fawn's family members. None of them get a nickname. Fawn's father is Sanatuwa; her mother is Menisikwe, and the baby brother who died was Namah. I'm also curious as to why there aren't any hyphens in their names.

In chapter one when Whelan introduces us to Fawn, we learn that it was a good trapping season:
Each day in the forest the spirits of the animals called to my father. They told him where to put his snares and traps. He brought back many skins" (p. 7). 
While that passage sure sounds "Indian" (according to romantic notions of American Indians), I don't think Potawatomi--or any Native spirituality--works that way. Instead, there is a respect for all living things and a fundamental idea that human beings are one creature on the planet, not the creature who is superior to all others. 

As noted, Libby's family warns Fawn's family of impending trouble. That sounds nice, but I'm pretty sure a Potawatomi family during that time would be aware of that trouble and wouldn't have needed a White family to warn them.

Later in the story, Libby is at Fawn's camp when the soldiers round them up. The soldiers don't believe Libby is a White girl, and she's forced to get on a wagon and be taken away, too. We learn that, as a young child, Fawn had been sick and nursed (saved) by Libby's family, but I wonder what illness Fawn had that her own people couldn't nurse her?

Because Libby's family saved Fawn, Sanatuwa feels it is his duty to return Libby to her family. That night, Sanatuwa, Menisikwe, Fawn, the new baby, and Libby escape. Libby feels bad that Sanatuwa has put his family at risk in trying to return Libby, but he tells her not to feel bad, because his decision to return her is "the means of our freedom" (p. 54). If it wasn't for Libby, Sanatuwa and his family would be leaving their homelands.

Once Libby is reunited with her family, Sanatuwa and his family leave.

In Night of the Full Moon, Whelan tried to do some things right, but couldn't break out of stereotypical tropes that characterize far too many stories about American Indians. And because those stereotypes are so predominant and not recognized as problematic, the book was listed on a few "best books" lists when it came out.

Is it on your shelves? Maybe it is one you can weed out of your collection to make room for books that don't stereotype American Indians.

NOTE: Check out Rebecca Rabinowitz's "Source fiction is no excuse for racism." It is a review of Whelan's After the Train, and read the comments to her review, too! Rebecca's critique is excellent.

No comments: